By Bruce W. Smith
Editorial Services, LLC)
the neighborhood. The streetlights that normally bring a sense of serenity
to our street stand as mute silhouettes against a gray sky. Neighboring
houses are just as dark as the street. The only sense of life is the
occasional flicker of flashlights and lanterns through the windows.
We are more fortunate. While others are worrying about spoiled food,
isolation and roughing it for an indeterminate time, life is near normal
in our household; the lights are on, as is the refrigerator/freezer in the
The power outage from the hurricane that has put thousands around us in
the dark is nothing more than a slight inconvenience thanks to a portable
Honda generator, purring away in the carport, supplying stand-by power to
run our home.
Like everyone else across the country who lives where the threat of
hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, ice and snowstorms, and rolling
blackouts are a part of the seasonal life cycle, we'd spent our share of
time relying on a camp stove, lanterns, flashlights and canned foods while
waiting for power to be restored.
And, like so many others, the time had come to change the pattern.
"Sales of portable generators for home standby have been on the rise as
people are increasingly seeking added security during power outages, and
find that they make valuable companions for recreational activites like
camping, RVing, or tailgating at sporting events," said Steve Bailey,
assistant vice president of Honda Power Equipment.
So we went shopping for a high-power portable generator - one we could use
for multiple applications around the home and at the camp. What we quickly
found is you have to do your homework to make the right choice.
SIZE TO FIT
The first step is to determine your needs. Do you want the generator to
power part or all of your home or office?
"A back-up generator is a protective product, so purchase the biggest unit
within your budget," says Donnie Simpson, a certified electrician with 15
years experience taking care of the electrical needs of homeowners from
Florida to Texas.
"But be aware that portable generators can't run everything at
once--or be powerful enough to run some home appliances at all--even
though the sales brochures may lead you to believe otherwise."
For example, Simpson points out that the typical central-heating and
air-conditioning units in many of today's modern homes requires more
power than a portable generator can supply. Most are wired on a 30-amp
circuit while the small portable generators can only supply 20-25. The
same applies to electric ranges, electric water heaters and
"Those appliances are big electrical hogs. Portable generators just
can't handle the load," says Simpson. "So the homeowner has to look at
the other items the generator can handle and make a purchase decision
based on those limitations."
Determining how big a generator you need requires a little homework.
The first place to start is with the most important items you want to
keep use when there's a power outage and adding up the "watts" they
take to operate.
If you are building a new home, consider having the contractor install
a sub-panel that is already setup for stand-by power. This saves you
money because there's usually no additional installation labor costs
and the generator-ready panel eliminates the need for an additional
transfer switch box.
Electrical parts suppliers, such as Square "D" and Reliance, offer
sub-panels that already have the generator plug-in and transfer switch
pre-wired into the unit. Generator-ready service panels run $200-$300
more than standard units, but the labor and convenience factor more
than make up for the cost difference.
Having your home's electrical system set-up for stand-by power from a
portable generator also adds to its resale value-especially in
areas where power outages are a frequent
"Having a fundamental understanding of your
wattage requirements can prevent you from either overspending or
purchasing a generator that's too small for the job," said Tom Pernice of
Honda Generators product planning.
A good starting point in determining generator size is checking out the
Internet. Honda Power Equipment (www.hondapowerequipment.com/wat.htm.) and
Plano Power Equipment (www.planopower.com/honda/generator_guide.html) list
common wattages for different home appliances.
But these are just starting points-you need to look at your own home's
electrical appliances and setup.
Some loads are easy to determine - a 100-watt light bulb, for example,
uses 100 watts. Ten 100-watt bulbs would require 1,000 watts, or 1
kilowatt (1 "kW"). The power requirements for other household appliances
can be found on the operating manual or on the nameplate.
You also need to look for "starting" watts rather than operating watts.
Freezers, refrigerators, microwaves and gas-furnace fans require
considerably more wattage to start then they do to run. Such electrical
appliances require as much as four-times the wattage to get started,
placing a huge load on the generator.
For example, a refrigerator/freezer may require 800 watts to run, but
2,500 watts to start, while a 1/4-hp furnace fan might take 1,600 watts to
startup and 600 watts to run. Turn on the microwave and it can use
2,800watts to get going and 2,000 watts to continue the cycle.
Once you have a list of items you'd like to run when the power goes down,
start adding everything up.
If you want to keep the refrigerator running (2200 starting watts,) a
color TV (300 watts,) and four 100-watt light bulbs (400 watts) - you
would need a 3000-watt generator. Plug in the coffee maker (1700 watts)
without turning off something else, and your generator needs jump to 5,000
Marie, Honda Power Equipment public relations manager, says consumers
should size a generator 20-25-percent larger than they determine their
needs to be. This allows for a small margin of error in determining
operating loads in a home and keeps the generator running below its
maximum load rating for better efficiency.
"What homeowners need to understand is there's a limited supply of
electricity on a stand-by power system," says Jerry Paige, owner of Paige
Electric in Long Beach, Mississippi.
"You have to learn how to manage the home's electrical use with a portable
generator. It's a balancing act; if you want to turn one thing on in the
house, then something else must be turned off first or the whole system
overloads and shuts down."
Paige recommends turning on the refrigerator first, followed by the
freezer. Once those two appliances are operating, turn on a few lights and
any other low-wattage electrical items as needed. The freezer can be
unplugged once it's chilled down, allowing electrical use to be diverted
to, say, a microwave or hotplate.
What most homeowners will find is a generator with 4,500- to 6,000-watt
capacity is the minimum required for stand-by power applications. Anything
smaller and the investment will be a disappointment when the power lines
An even greater consideration-and one many homeowners fail to recognize-is
safety issue when it comes to the proper use and installation of a
"There are a lot of homeowners out there who buy a generator and just plug
it into the nearest outlet without thinking about the deadly situation
they just put themselves and others in," warns Paige.
Hence the need for what is commonly called a "transfer switch." A transfer
switch is a manual three-position switching device that allows power to be
channeled to the home's electrical system either from the utility company
power lines or from the generator-not both.
"A transfer switch is a key component of any home standby setup, as it
simplifies the distribution of power to appropriate areas of the home, and
minimizes the risk of shock to those repairing power lines," said Clay
Yeatman, model engineer for Honda Generators.
Plugging a generator directly into a wall socket instead of utilizing a
transfer switch sets up several potentially deadly scenarios: a
short-circuit and electrical fire in the home's wiring when power is
restored; a system short-circuit in the generator causing it to catch fire
or explode when power is restored; and the possible electrocution of
linemen working to restore power in your area.
"Placing power company workers harm's way is something few, if any,
homeowners think about," says Simpson.
"The use of a double-throw (on-off-on) transfer switch is critical for
home generator use. It protects everyone concerned-from the homeowner's
family to the power company personnel working to restore power-from
'back-feeding' the power grid."
Some generator users
mistakenly think they can run a regular extension cord from their
generator to a wall outlet in the home. Such a practice is a recipe
According to Reliance Controls, the world's leading supplier of
transfer switches for portable generators, "This can be done as long
as no connection exists between the generator and the utility and the
appliance and the utility, i.e. there is no chance of back-feeding the
Making that direct connection from the generator to the house circuit
with an extension cord sends power back to the service panel and on
into the power lines. It also energizes just one circuit in the house,
where using a transfer switch connection energize the sub panel and
Another safety factor is the typical extension cord is not heavy
enough to handle the current or load placed on it by the larger
portable generators. The end result can be overheating of the
extension cord and eventual short-circuiting of the system,
potentially damaging both home and generator.
The potential for electrocuting an unsuspecting person happens the
instant the generator connects to the home's electrical csystem. The
local utility company uses a step-down transformer to drop incoming
voltage to the home from 17,500-volts to 220. What homeowners don't
realize is the transformer can function just as easily in the other
When you plug a home generator directly into the house circuit without
using a transfer switch, that current feeds back to the power
company's transformer. In turn, the transformer steps the generator's
voltage up to 17,500 volts and feeds it on into the power lines.
This stepped up voltage, backfeeding through the utility lines from
the home's stand-by generator, is more than enough to electrocute
anyone coming in contact with lines they thought were dead.
A double-throw transfer switch, which isolates the utility company's
power from that supplied by the generator-and vise versa, prevents
backfeeding from occurring. That is why the use of a transfer switch
is required by the National Electric Code when connecting an auxiliary
power source (generator) to an existing system (home).
Buying a portable stand-by generator for home, cabin, or office use
can range from $500 to $4,500 depending on make, output, design and
amenities. The bigger the output, the more sophisticated the design,
and the more features a generator provides, the higher the price.
You must also factor in the cost of a transfer switch ($150 for a
30-ampere model designed for light-duty home applications),
its professional installation ($200-$400
depending on the location of your service meter box), and the heavy-duty
power cable ($75-$125) that is required to connect the generator to the
transfer switch box.
"We recommend using a water-resistant,
Seoprene-covered 10/4 AWG cable with marine-style four-pin twist-lock
plugs," says Paige, who made up the 75-foot extension cable that runs from
carport to the transfer switch box for our installation. "Not only can it
safely carry the heavy electrical load, it also provides protection from
both the elements and abrasion."
The best time to shop is during the Fall and Spring when inventories are
high and demand low. You can also save money by shopping on the Internet.
There are numerous sources form which to choose (see list at end of
Most of today's portable generators are powered by diesel or four-stroke
gasoline engines, which, under maximum load, will burn up to a gallon of
fuel per hour. Fuel tanks are generally large enough to provide 5-7 hours
of uninterrupted power.
"Factors homeowners should consider are buying a generator like yours that
is going to be durable for the long haul, quite running, efficient in its
operation, and provide 'over-current' protection," Simpson said during the
installation of the transfer switch so we could use the new Honda
EX5500K2A for our home's stand-by power.
Shopping for a portable generator?
Check out these Internet sources for discounted prices:
Honda generators use state-of-the-art four-stroke engine design to
minimize fuel use and noise while maximizing generator output.
Four-strokes are also very low maintenance, adding to long-term
Top-of-the-line models, such as the 5500-watt Honda we chose, also
provide such niceties as electric key start, circuit breakers with
automatic over-load protection, "clean" electrical power for computers
and other sensitive electronic equipment, low-oil warning/protection,
and automatic idle/throttle that adjusts the generator to the loads,
brand and model of generator you choose depends entirely on needs and
budget. Coleman, Devilbiss, Generac, Homelite, Honda, Mitsubishi and
Yamaha offer a wide-range of models and prices.
Whatever the choice, having a stand-by system in place is a nice
security blanket that more than pays for itself when the power goes
For more information visit: